Column - Giving at what cost

HOW do you judge if a person is worthy of a donation? Appeals are made at every turn – on the sidewalk, outside banks, and in restaurants.

Chances are you would have been approached by a visually-impaired person led by a sighted person who I cannot convincingly say has taken up this role without any thought for profit. Perhaps this is their way of helping the unfortunate but it's more likely a symbiotic relationship and they pocket from it as well.

You would likely have also encountered others within this fold. The most common are those collecting funds for orphanages, refugees and independent religious schools.

What do we call these people who solicit for money? Beggars? Are they helpless or just taking advantage of human sympathy?

This is not a new issue and it has been covered many times, opening up discourse as to whether it should be viewed as a public nuisance or something much more to measure our social economic state and morality. Truth be told, I've always struggled to understand altruism. Not that I don't believe in lending a hand but I find myself conflicted about how an act of kindness makes people feel good and how that can become their prime motivation to give, or worse, the only reason.

If you just want that warm feeling as a result of giving then surely it no longer counts as selfless.

I'm not accusing all generous people of being self-serving, but I am curious to know what our intentions are for us to fully understand the impact of our actions.

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, recently released a book arguing against empathy. He says people often vicariously feel the plight of a specific group, person or cause, and want to help at the expense of ignoring others in more pressing circumstances. He also says that it's hard to care about more than one or two people at the same time, having us home in on and feel too much for a specific target and in turn miss the bigger picture.

From my understanding, it seems to indicate that empathy is selective and driven by factors other than compassion. Here Bloom advocates using our head more than our hearts in trying to do our part for society and thus not have empathy become our moral compass because of its bias.

I must admit I have found myself under pressure when the blind "tissue purveyor" arrives at my restaurant table to collect a token of my compassion. I feel a sense of obligation to reach for my purse if everyone else makes a start for theirs for fear of being harried by peer judgment if I were to refuse a person in "need".

Once or twice the stink eye came from the donation seekers themselves when I chose not to give them what they expect, forcing me to feel some guilt.

My most recent experience made me ponder on this once again. I had arrived at the gate of my house when I was approached by a young woman and a child. The woman explained that she was collecting donations for Rohingnyas. I scrutinised her for awhile to decide whether she was genuine.

Her "pitch" included tattered donation receipts, pictures of refugee children and the child with her. She explained she was a cleaner but had to collect donations to support the children.

But she could not give me the address of the shelter and tell me more about its occupants. In the end I didn't want to continue questioning her on the street as I had other things to do and gave her a donation.

I'd like to think that I had helped out in a small way for a bigger cause, but I don't actually feel convinced of my "goodwill". I'm not sure if I empathised with her only because I knew about the persecution of her community, or I was just tired of trying to figure out what would be the right thing to do when someone asks for help. Sure you can say perhaps they'd benefit more from non-monetary assistance but to arrange volunteer work wouldn't be as immediate as giving cash.

I cannot tell you who deserves your kindness but I honestly feel that so long as you're sincere, you're allowed unrelenting hope that whatever you chose to contribute will in some way help someone.

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